Jewish Journal

Torah portion: Preserve freedom by remembering slavery

by Joshua Holo

Posted on Jan. 28, 2015 at 11:09 am

<em>Joshua Holo. Photo by Joel Lipton</em>

Joshua Holo. Photo by Joel Lipton

Finally, after two consecutive weeks of cliffhangers, B’shalach, the heart of the Exodus tale, tantalizes us with what appears to be a complete story. It recounts an entire drama that builds tension and unfolds in a cinematic climax with the Israelites escaping Pharaoh and crossing the Sea of Reeds. It concludes with a decisive, violent end, as Moses bookends the story with the fulfillment of his earlier promise: “The Egyptians, whom you see today, you will never see again.” 

A perfect denouement, the narrative conclusion that wraps the story up like a bow.

Except it doesn’t end there. 

Rather, the narrative continues for what amounts to perhaps three more anticlimactic episodes, seeming footnotes to the master story of the Exodus. The Israelites suffer hunger and thirst, receive manna and, lastly, battle the Amalekites. Perversely, this week’s reading (as apportioned by the rabbis) actively withholds the satisfaction of a pithy and definitive resolution, such as one expects from a neatly crafted and rounded-out tale. 

Instead, it gives way to the niggling vestige of bondage that even the miracle of the sea cannot cleanse. The euphoria of Miriam’s Song and the Song at the Sea (some of the Bible’s earliest literary strata) may celebrate liberation, but the people themselves — our people — harp on their burdens. They go so far as to prefer degradation and death “in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full” (Exodus 16:3).

The Israelites are not sympathetic characters, but one can sympathize. The ongoing danger, hunger and thirst are real, as the 16th-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno is careful to acknowledge. Nevertheless, we, their descendants, also thirst and hunger — for vision and courage — and Torah offers us no Patrick Henry among the crowd, no clamor to “give me liberty or give me death.” No less than four times, the Israelites simply grumble. You can almost hear the grim sarcasm in the rising tone at the end of the question: “There weren’t enough graves in Egypt so you brought us to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). Internally, one can hardly suppress adding an introductory “nu?” 

We know, even as we read the story, that a tidy conclusion will not suffice to resolve the persistence of the slave mindset and, more troubling, its scathing (and situationally accurate) critique of freedom. So Torah regales us with 40 years of generational purging, which justifies the remainder of Torah’s long narrative road to the ultimate resolution, i.e., arriving in the Promised Land. 

Alternatively, reading Torah as revelation, one might attribute B’shalach’s lack of closure to the fact that everyone’s destiny still awaits Sinai. In this vein, the 12th-century Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra reads Moses’ encouragement, just days after escaping Egypt, to “give ear to His commandments and keep all His laws,” as a reference to the positive and negative commandments yet to be given (Exodus 15:26). 

Either way, in delaying the resolution, the Israelites’ complaining sets the stage for an ongoing, internal conflict (“man versus himself”) that shapes the rest of Torah: from the golden calf, to Korach’s rebellion, to the denial of Moses’ entry into the land.

B’shalach regains its intensity only when looking back and viewing it in light of the unadorned and unabashed cliffhanger of the previous week’s portion, Bo. There, the Israelites have scampered off into the night, taking “their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulder” to meet their fate (Exodus 12:34). Right at that uncertain moment, Bo stops the tense crescendo of action in its tracks, only to digress on the mitzvot of unleavened bread and the Passover. 

The familiar message is clear, and it centers on the telling of the story, specifically, on the preservation of the memory of having once been slaves: “When your son asks you, in time to come, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage …’ ” (Exodus 13:14).

It is against the backdrop of Bo’s injunction that we find the real tension of our story this week. On the one hand, we memorialize our slavery as a cornerstone of our identity. On the other hand, our ancestors were forced to die in the desert, in a four-decades-long catharsis intended to distance the next generation from what it meant to actually be a slave.

This tension straddling the parshiyot finds resolution in the prioritization of its two parts: remembering and actually being. The goal — and priority — is to be free. But our tradition insists that, in order for one’s freedom to be dimensional and generous, one must first have a sense of its opposite. We must abandon slavery in all its forms, yes. But our job is to allow our freedom to be inflected by the humility, gratitude and empathy engendered by remembering that we, too, were once slaves in Egypt. 

In that way, our bondage — and even the Israelites’ stubborn attachment to it — does not debase but rather ennobles the freedom we so jealously guard.

Joshua Holo is dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

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